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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2015
Number 83
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Compassion and Truth Meet (Psalm 85.11)

By Jack D. Spiro

“…affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.” (1)

After her servants found the infant Moses in a basket floating on the Nile, Pharaoh’s daughter made the auspicious decision of adopting him as her son. Many years later, when he was a young adult, saw an Egyptian taskmaster ruthlessly beating one of the Hebrew slaves. Infuriated by this brutal treatment of a human being, Moses struck the Egyptian and then escaped to save his own life. In the desert a tribe of shepherds gave him refuge. While living and working among them, he met Zipporah and married her. (2)

Embellishing the biblical narrative, the rabbinic Midrash adds its own account. (3) As Moses was tending his father-in-law Jethro’s flock in the noon heat, a young lamb ran away. Moses followed it until it came to a shaded area where it found a pool of water and stopped to drink. Approaching the lamb, Moses said: “I didn’t realize that you ran away because you were thirsty. And now you must be tired.” So Moses put the young animal on his shoulders and carried it back to the flock. It was then that God chose Moses for the momentous task of leading the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt to freedom and eventual nationhood. God then spoke to him: “Because you showed compassion to one lamb in the flock, you will surely be compassionate in tending my flock, the people of Israel.” According to the Rabbis, the primary criterion for appointing Moses as leader of the Israelites, after four centuries of enslavement, was the depth of his compassion.

Although the story is from rabbinic literature, the concept of hesed (“compassion” in Hebrew) is based on many biblical passages. But the Rabbis extracted the basic value from the Bible and enriched it with original meanings. There is hardly a rabbinic idea that is not based on a biblical concept, character, commandment, or event. The rabbinic imagination, however, transformed every verse of the Bible into a creative tradition of multiple interpretations, such as the story of Moses and the lamb. The primary interpretation of the biblical hesed is known rabbinically as gemilut hasadim. Its translation comes through best by examining it in several contexts.

Simeon the Just, an early pioneer in the development of pharisaic-rabbinic literature, greeted Alexander the Great when he entered Jerusalem. Knowing that Alexander was not only a warrior but a student of philosophy and curious about the ideas of other peoples, Simeon may have explained some of the basic tenets of Judaism, among which was this statement attributed to him: “The world rests on three things: Torah, worship, and gemilut hasadim.” (4) The notion of a foundation on which the world rests occurs several times in pharisaic and rabbinic literature. It appears to mean that without certain values, the world of humanity could not endure. They are the desiderata of humane living, the essential ingredients of living in community. Human existence is severely diminished, even endangered, without moral values — more specifically, for our purposes, without gemilut hasadim; that is, performing acts of compassion and love for one another.

It is an idea deeply rooted in the soil of Judaism and nurtured through stories, homilies, and laws. With regard to many biblical values which are not explained in any detail, the Rabbis often asked themselves how these values could be lived in community. For example, the prophet Micah simply says that God requires ahavat hesed (a love of hesed or “compassion”) from us, but he doesn’t elucidate what he means by this kind of love. It’s up to the Rabbis to do so; as teachers, they saw this as one of their sacred obligations. So important was the value to them that they even believed it was “equal to all other commandments.” (5) There are similar passages which seem to be hyperbolic, but are intended to point to the paramount significance of this ethical concept, such as the following: The entire Torah begins and ends with gemilut hasadim; for instance, at the beginning of the Torah God “himself” makes clothing for Adam and Eve to wear [Genesis 3.21], and at the end God “himself” arranges for the burial of Moses [Deuteronomy 35.6]. So, a fortiori, human beings must emulate the deeds of God. (6)

To put it another way, nothing is more godly than gemilut hasadim. The very essence of Torah — i.e., Judaism itself — is synonymous with acts of compassion. It is this value that must resonate through all the observances and commandments of the Jewish tradition. When the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was reflecting on what this crumbling of the Jewish world would mean for the future of Judaism. Rabbi Joshua, his younger colleague, saw the Temple in ruins and, consumed with despair, cried out: “Woe unto us! The place where Israel found atonement for its transgressions is destroyed.” Rabbi Yochanan comforted Joshua by saying: “Don’t grieve, my son, we have a way to atone which is just as effective: gemilut hasadimz.” (7) The Rabbis were successful in offering their people three practices in place of the centuries-old biblical institutions of Temple, priesthood, and sacrificial offerings: learning (talmud torah), worship (tefillah), and acts of compassion (gemilut hasadimz) — practices already mentioned by Simeon the Just and in the process of developing for three centuries before the destruction of Jerusalem. As a result, Judaism was able to make the arduous but redemptive climb out of the Temple ruins, from one way of life to another, from biblical to rabbinic Judaism, from the death of an uprooted culture to renewal as people of the book.

In their transformative journey, the Rabbis discovered another essential characteristic of gemilut hasadimz embedded in Genesis 47.29: “And when the days of Israel’s death approached, he called his son Joseph and said to him: ‘If I have not found favor in your eyes put, I pray you, your hand under my thigh so that you will show me mercy (hesed) and truth (emet); bury me not, I pray you, in Egypt.” Rashi’s commentary on this passage (8) concentrates on the biblical phrase, hesed v’emet, translating it quite freely as “truly disinterested kindness,” adding that by this is meant “one must not hope for a reward” in performing acts of compassion (gemiulut hasadim).

Here, then, is the uniquely Jewish idea of compassion: the difference between charity (known as tsedakah) and compassion (hesed), summarized in this passage from the Talmud: “Tsedakah is performed with one’s money, given only to the poor; gemilut hasadimz is given to both poor and wealthy. Tsedakah can be provided only for the living; gemilut hasadimz to both the living and the dead.” (9) One is monetary and can be carried out impersonally; the other comes directly from one human being to another, performed with caring and commitment.

Note the rabbinic story above about God caring for the living Adam and Eve, but also for the deceased Moses. In fact, one midrashic compilation known as Tanchuma makes this even more explicit: “The highest form of gemilut hasadimz is that undertaken towards the dead, because there can never be any thought of reward from the recipient. A poor person may one day be in a position to repay his benefactor, but the dead person cannot repay; moreover, the deceased needs the help of the living….” (10)

Another distinction between tsedakah and gemilut hasadimz is in the area of legislation. The former can be legislated because it is considered the right of every human being to receive the necessities of life if a person is impoverished. Tsedakah relates to tsedek, which means “justice.” Providing an individual with material things essential for self-preservation is a matter of justice, which can be and is incorporated in a corpus of Jewish laws. Gemilut hasadimz, however, is beyond legislation. One relates to human rights, the other to human needs — a subtle but important distinction, expressed in this story by Rabbi Moshe Leib (1745-1807), a Hasidic rabbi from the Ukrainian town of Sasov: “I learned how we must truly love our neighbor from a conversation I overheard between two villagers. The first said: ‘Tell me, dear friend, do you love me?’ The second: ‘I love you deeply.’ The first: ‘Do you know, my friend, what gives me pain?’ The second: ‘How can I know what gives you pain?’ The first: ‘If you don’t know what gives me pain, how can you say that you truly love me?’ Understand, then, to love — truly to love — means to know what brings pain to your fellow human being.” (11)

There is another distinction between tsedakah and gemilut hasadimz. Since tsedakah is embodied in Jewish law, there are legal limitations to what a person can give. The Talmud specifically states that the limit is 20% of our possessions. (12) Gemilut hasadimz can either be distinguished altogether from tsedakah, but it can also be understood as the apex of tsedakah, which is the way Moses Maimonides interprets it. The great legalist-philosopher spelled out eight degrees of tsedakah and made the following expression of gemilut hasadimz the highest rung of the ladder: helping a person to help himself; lending him money to open a business (he can pay back the money, but he can’t give the business); helping him join in a partnership; finding him a job so that he can support himself and have no further need of tsedakah. Gemilut hasadimz is still distinctive because it helps a person avoid the need for tsedakah.

Judaism is considered a religion of law, sometimes even criticized for being narrowly legalistic. Extremist tendencies, of course, exist in every religious tradition. But it is also within the mainstream of Judaism to understand that our lives cannot be lived by a legal code alone, by mindless or even mindful obedience to legislation.

The value of gemilut hasadimz is also subsumed under the comprehensive principle of middat hasidut — the quality of compassion — as opposed to middat hadin: the principle of rules, laws, and statutes. Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (1194-1270) pointed out that a person can live his life strictly by the letter of the law and still be a villain. (13) After Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai survived the obliteration of Jerusalem, he had already applied the later reflection of Moses ben Nachman to this devastating experience when he wrote that “Jerusalem was destroyed only because its inhabitants…did not act beyond the letter of the law (lifnim mishurat hadin).” (14)

This important rabbinic principle does not mean that gemlut hasadim supplants or replaces the law. It is only meant to serve as a reminder that law codes cannot encompass all the moral issues and challenges of life. The compassionate life cannot be circumscribed or even defined by legislative parameters. A Jew is expected to carry out the demands of halachah (rabbinic codes of law), imperatives that are clearly prescribed in unambiguous detail. But the legal code of Judaism “accepts” its own limitations in the creation of a moral stance that transcends law. This understanding of human behavior in relation to others was so important to rabbinic authorities that they found a biblical sanction for it in Exodus 18.20. Jethro advises Moses on leading the Israelites and says to him: “…enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.” In a talmudic passage, this is what the biblical phrases mean to Rabbi Yosef: “Make known to them”signifies how to make a living; “the way” refers to gemilut hasadimz; “they are to go” represents visiting the sick and burying the dead; “the practices” means the precise letter of the law (hadin); “they are to follow” refers to lifnim mishurat hadin (going beyond the letter of the law). (15)

Rabbi ben Nachman confirms this position of an earlier colleague by saying that the Torah, the laws of God, cannot encompass every possible situation that occurs in human intercourse, every moral problem that can challenge a community. A story in the Talmud relates to this reality. Some porters who had been working for Rabba bar Huna broke a barrel of wine while carrying it. Because they had evidently been somewhat negligent, the strict letter of the law (shurat hadin) would have held them liable for the damage. They had been remiss in performing their assigned tasks and were, therefore, not entitled to their pay. By way of guaranteeing restitution, Rabba held onto their clothes, which had been left in his possession as surety. Then “they came and told Rav who in turn told Rabba: ‘Return their clothes to them.’ Rabba asked if this was the din (strict law). ‘Yes,’ Rav answered [quoting Proverbs], that you may walk in the way of good human beings. Rabba then returned their clothes, and they said to him: ‘We are poor, we have worked all day, and now we are hungry and left with nothing.’ So Rav said to Rabba: ‘Go and pay their wages!’ Rabba asked: ‘Is this also the din?’ ‘Yes,’ replied Rav, ‘and [quoting Proverbs again], keep to the paths of the righteous.’” (16)

Another talmudic sage, Rav Huna, interprets Psalm 145.17 [“The Lord is just (from tsedek) and compassionate (from hesed) in all his doings”): “Initially God applies tsedek, but at the end he encounters the world with the principle of hesed, because the world could not exist without hesed. (17)

The 14th century Maggid Mishneh, a commentary on the Mishneh Torah, the classical compendium of Jewish law, states that the Torah could not command every detail of a person’s life, which varies on the basis of time and the individual. But the Torah could and did establish two primary principles: one of din (laws that are universally applicable) and the other of hesed (the immeasurable expression of loving deeds). (18)

There is a further way that the Rabbis validated the driving power of gemilut hasadimz, of acting compassionately. Its traditional authority is embedded in the basic Jewish concept of tselem Eloheem (the image of God), living our lives in the divine image. Translating it more broadly but still accurately, living a godly life. (19) In what could be a humorous but sincere vein, Rabbi Yehudah ben Ilai refers to our emulation of God by living a godly life in his interpretation not only of the principle of gemilut hasadimz as the beginning and end of Torah, but also in relation to Adam and Eve’s “wedding.” Rabbi Yehudah said that God himself attended to the needs of the bride and actually served as “best man” at the wedding of the first couple. And he asks rhetorically, what other explanation can there be for the biblical passage, “And he [God] brought her unto the man?” (20)

A final interpretation of compassion in Judaism is its critical importance for human survival itself. Not being the “fittest” necessarily but the most caring is essential for the survival of the human community; or the “fittest” for human beings may be synonymous with being the most caring. Because we are more vulnerable in our infancy and for a longer period of time than any other species, we could not survive without the loving and patient care of older generations. The benevolence of one generation must be passed on to the next for the assurance of continuity and perpetuation. Perhaps this is what the rabbinic author of another midrashic text meant when he wrote that the “first generations [of humanity] were given the most days and lived the longest lives…in order to see whether they would engage in gemilut hasadimz for their immediate forebears.” (21)

From beginning to end, the Torah — representing the entirety of Judaism — is concerned with gemilut hasadimz (from clothing the first couple to burying the first prophet). Similarly, according to Judaism, from the inception of life to its completion, deeds of compassion are the moral force guiding the human community, making the world a household of love. (22)

Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov was moved by the conversation of the two villagers whom he overheard in a tavern. Because he applied the lesson of that experience with an unwavering love for others in his daily conduct, the townspeople began referring to him as the “father of widows and orphans.” Of his many writings, this may be the most representative of our theme: “If someone comes to you and asks for your help, don’t turn him off with pious words, saying, ‘Have faith and take your troubles to God;’ but act as if there were no God, as if there were only one person in all the world who could help — only you.” (23)

But much further back in time than a Hasidic rabbi was answer was given as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakki, the first Jew to hold the rabbinical title, emerged out of the rubble of Jerusalem with the Temple in ruins after the Romans destroyed the nation. One of his disciples cried out: “Woe unto us that our city, our Temple, our nation are all laid waste!” And Rabbi Yochanan said to him: “My son, do not grieve, we have something more effective than all this. “And what is that?” asked Joshua. Yochanan answered, quoting the prophet Hosea: “It is acts of compassion and not sacrificial offerings.” That will keep the Jewish people alive. So it did, so it has, so it will.


  1. Abraham J. Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1972), 72.
  2. Exodus 2.5-21
  3. “Midrash” is a vast body of post-biblical literature consisting of rabbinic homilies and legends related to Jewish ethics and religious concepts compiled over a 1,000-year period. It is, in essence, the classical value system of Judaism. The story itself is found in Midrash Exodus Rabba 2.2.
  4. Talmud Bavli Yoma 69a; Mishnah Avot 1.2.
  5. Talmud Yerushalmi Peach 1.1.15c.
  6. Talmud Bavli Sota 14a.
  7. Avot de Rabbi Natan Mishnah Avot 1.2.
  8. “Rashi” is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitschak (1040-1105). His biblical commentary became an indispensable guide for providing illuminating insights into biblical passages.
  9. Talmud Bavli Sukkah 49b.
  10. Tanchuma B, Vayechi
  11. Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The later Masters (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1961), 86.
  12. Talmud Bavli Ketuvot 50a.
  13. Commentary on Leviticus 19.2
  14. Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 30b
  15. Talmud Bavli Bava Kama 100a-b.
  16. Proverbs 2.20, Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 83a
  17. Talmud Bavli Rosh Hashanah 17b.
  18. Maggid Mishneh, Shekhenim 14.5.
  19. See such biblical passages as Exodus 19.6, 8; Leviticus 19.1; Deuteronomy 28.9.
  20. Beresheet Rabba 12.5; Genesis 2.22.
  21. Seder Eliyahu Rabba 80, 86, 123.
  22. Talmud Bavli Bava Batra 10a.
  23. Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, 89.

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